HALIFAX — Stephen McNeil is a soft-spoken man with a lower-register voice and a somewhat imposing 6-foot-5 frame. He doesn't always exude warmth on TV, and he understands that.
"Some might see me as a bit stiff and not as jovial as I really am," said the 52-year-old Liberal premier. "For most Nova Scotians, that's how they know me, through the television screen."
David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said that is McNeil's biggest challenge as he seeks a second straight majority in the May 30 election: his image, as conveyed through the mainstream media.
"I've always sensed that for a Nova Scotia premier to do well, they need to be seen as avuncular — everyone's favourite uncle," Johnson said.
"If there's an Achilles heel for Stephen McNeil ... it's that he comes off as being rather cold and aloof, and a bit condescending at times — some would say arrogant. If I was a campaign manager, I'd be telling him, 'Be warmer, but more avuncular.'"
In an interview with The Canadian Press in his seventh-floor office overlooking Halifax harbour, a more easygoing manner emerges as McNeil talks about growing up in the Annapolis Valley, the 12th of 17 children.
He points to treasured items, including signed photos of NHL greats Sidney Crosby and Bobby Orr. Above those pictures are collages showing a jumble of photos of his two children when they were young. Colleen is now 27 and Jeffrey is 25.
On another wall, there's a picture of the 13th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, where he and his son travelled to watch the 2010 Masters Tournament. The premier says he's not much of a golfer, but his son is accomplished at the sport.
On a shelf facing his desk, there's a single, black-and-white photo of his father Burt, who choked to death while eating Sunday dinner when McNeil was eight years old.
McNeil recalls how he and 13 other siblings were ushered out of the house that day, the youngest only 18 months old.
"There's a big gap in people's lives when something like that happens," he said, recalling how his mother Theresa suddenly faced the daunting task of raising so many young children on her own.
"She had no driver's licence and hadn't worked outside the house ... The next morning, she woke up and said, 'We're it.' We were all looking at her."
She would later work in a factory before becoming Canada’s first female high sheriff, which made her responsible for court security in Annapolis County.
McNeil studied refrigeration repair in Dartmouth, N.S., before opening his own appliance repair shop in Bridgetown, east of the family home in Granville Ferry. He ran the business for 15 years before winning his first provincial election bid in 2003.
"I didn't train to be the premier," he said. "I was out working. I made my living carrying a tool box."
McNeil is a self-described fiscal conservative who has made it his mission to balance the province's books.
Throughout his first term, the premier has taken aim at public sector unions, saying members' wages have increased 11.5 per cent over the past seven years, well above the increases seen in the private sector.
"Most Nova Scotians who aren't in the public sector would have liked to have that over the last seven years," he said. "(But) we didn't remove anything. We just said, 'Let's just slow down and let the economy catch up.'"
Last February, McNeil's government imposed a contract on 9,400 public school teachers, ending a two-month work-to-rule campaign.
In April 2014, the government forced 2,400 striking nurses back to work by introducing legislation that requires all health-sector unions to draft essential services agreements before any job action can occur.
It has made him some enemies, and harshened his public image, and both opposition parties have built much of their campaigns around that.
The premier said he got a whiff of what was coming on April 19 when Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie took what McNeil felt was a personal shot at him.
"His style of leadership, which has been to divide people, which has been to keep people down — like nurses and teachers who want to make the system better — is not getting us where we need to be," Baillie told CBC.
A few days later, NDP Leader Gary Burrill described McNeil as "morally deficient."
McNeil said he expects the campaign will be nasty.
"I'm bruised up enough now that I can deal with all that stuff," McNeil said. "But I worry about the slope we're on."
In particular, he said the rise of social media has led to a debasement of political discourse, where reasoned debate has been replaced by taunts that reverberate through the Internet's echo chambers.
McNeil noted a recent online post from one of his own constituents referred to him as a latter-day Hitler.
"There are people, that's all they do. They sit there, and it's their avenue to say whatever they want to say without ever having to be held accountable for it ... And it's becoming part of campaigns."
An opinion poll in March suggested voter support for the Liberals had declined sharply since the previous quarter, but the numbers still pointed toward another majority win for the governing party.
Decided voter support for the Liberal party dropped from 56 per cent to 44 per cent, according to a survey of 1,210 adults conducted by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates Inc. The Progressive Conservatives stood at 28 per cent, up eight points, and the New Democrats were at 23 per cent, up from 19 per cent, while five per cent supported the Green Party.
McNeil said he wasn't concerned about his party's dip in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
He said the poll shows most Nova Scotians understand the tough decisions were for the right reasons.
"There isn't a four-year premier in Canada that wouldn't take those numbers," he said.
TOMORROW: NDP Leader Gary Burrill
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press